Voters in the United Kingdom are deciding on Thursday whether the country should remain in or leave the European Union. Unless the result is particularly close, the outcome of the long-anticipated referendum is expected to be known by early Friday, though the terms of any subsequent exit will likely take around two years to negotiate with other existing EU members.
Intensive campaigning has been taking place in recent weeks on both sides, though this was suspended last week in response to the street murder of British Member of Parliament Jo Cox. Some have claimed that the MP’s murder was a reaction to her strongly held political views, including in favour of the UK remaining in the EU.
The UK government’s official position is to support the UK’s continued membership of the EU, under terms renegotiated with EU leaders by British prime minister David Cameron prior to his announcement of the referendum. But serving government ministers have been given the right to campaign either for or against an exit. The official opposition, the Labour Party, is also in favour of remaining in the EU, though again some of its MPs are supporting the exit campaign.
Early on in the campaign, opinion polls widely suggested that the remain side was in the lead. The exit vote had then made substantial progress to catch up, but its support is believed to have been dented following Ms Cox’s death, and many now say that the outcome of Thursday’s referendum is too close to call.
At the forefront of the referendum campaign have been issues including immigration, the UK’s contribution to and benefits from the EU budget, the effect of EU membership on UK sovereignty, and EU laws and regulations and their impact on British businesses. Both sides of the campaign have been variously accused of using misleading facts and figures to further their support, and of pursuing negative tactics described as a ‘campaign of fear’.
The UK first joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. The EEC was the precursor to the EU and based on the principles of the European Coal and Steel Community, itself established to unify European countries in the aftermath of the Second World War. No referendum was held prior to the UK joining the EEC, though a referendum held in 1975 to ascertain public opinion on continued membership returned 67% support for the UK remaining a member.
However, British membership of the EU has remained a topic of debate since, and the 2015 general election manifesto of the Conservative party – who ultimately secured an overall parliamentary majority and formed the current UK government – promised a referendum on the issue.
Though Cameron has insisted he will remain prime minister in the event of a vote to exit to EU, and has committed in such an event to setting an exit plan in motion as quickly as possible, analysts have suggested that his position may quickly become untenable. Europhile and former Conservative chancellor Ken Clarke has claimed Cameron ‘wouldn’t last 30 seconds’ if the result is in favour of exiting the bloc, while current justice secretary and former education secretary Michael Gove – himself campaigning to leave the EU, and acting as co-convenor of the Vote Leave campaign – has vowed on Twitter to resign from the government in the event of a vote to remain.
Other prominent Vote Leave campaigners include former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, widely understood to have Conservative party leadership and prime ministerial aspirations in the event of Cameron’s resignation, and controversial UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.